Bell's theorem of Aboriginal art: it's a white
Date: 11 November 2003
Richard Bell generated national controversy after winning
this year's Indigenous Art Award with his Scientia E. Metaphysica
by wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words 'White Girls Can't Hump' to
the awards ceremony. When some politicians demanded the award be
withdrawn, the artist responded by pointing to the racism suffered by
Aboriginal people on a daily basis and, to his role as an artist who
questions the nature of Aboriginal art today ... which he outlines
Richard Bell has exhibited from London to Dusseldorf to the National
Gallery in Canberra. Many of his works, which have embraced a wide range
of styles, deal with the treatment of Aboriginal people after European
Author's note: This paper has been written to
articulate some thoughts on this subject that may not yet be in the public
domain. I am the primary source for most of the information gathered
(often through personal experience or discussions with numerous people). I
must say here that I am not an academic. Consequently, the style and tone
chops and changes. It will be conversational, playful, serious, tongue in
cheek, moralistic, tolerant, sermonistic and informative.
Aboriginal Art has become a product of the times. A commodity. The
result of a concerted and sustained marketing strategy, albeit, one that
has been loose and uncoordinated. There is no Aboriginal Art Industry.
There is, however, an industry that caters for Aboriginal Art. The key
players in that industry are not Aboriginal. They are mostly White people
whose areas of expertise are in the fields of anthropology and 'Western
Art'. It will be shown here how key issues inter-relate to produce the
phenomenon called Aboriginal Art and how those issues conspire to condemn
it to non-Aboriginal control.
During the last century and a quarter Western Art has evolved into an
elaborate, sophisticated and complex system. This system supplies venues
(museums, galleries, etc), teaching facilities (art education
institutions, drawing classes, etc) and referees (art critics). It offers
huge rewards for the chosen few elite players in the game (including
artists, curators, art critics, art dealers and even patrons). This
arrangement is not dissimilar to modern spectator sports. It is also not
unlike ancient religions - substitute Gods, sacrificial offerings, High
Priests, etc. Like some voracious ancient God, Western Art devours all
offerings at will. Sometimes the digestion will be slow and painful.
However, it is resilient and will inexorably continue on its pre-ordained
path - to analyse and pigeonhole everything.
Western Art is the product of Western Europeans and their colonial
offspring. It imposes and perpetuates superiority over art produced in
other parts of the world. The African Masks copied by Picasso are an
example. Westerners drooled at Picasso's originality - to copy the African
artists while simultaneously ignoring the genius of the Africans.
Any new 'art movement' is, after the requisite hoopla and hype,
named and given an ISM, that is duly attached to the end of a noun,
e.g.. 'Modernism'. This 'nounism' doesn't transfer to non-Western art.
Words like primitive, ethnographic, provincialist or folk-art suffice.
Below the isms are 'Schools'. A noun followed by School. For
example, the Heidelberg School. Aboriginal Art is considered a 'movement'
and as yet has not graduated to ism status by being 'named'. I shall do so
now. I name Aboriginal Art Hierowism. It is the modern version of
hieroglyphics. As there is always controversy, I think it's appropriate.
But can an 'unqualified Black' name an Art Movement?
Prior to the 20th Century, art produced by Westerners from former
colonies was not considered to be up to the standard of art produced by
resident Europeans. The North Americans demanded, and begrudgingly
attained, parity with their European cousins. In fact, the axis of power
has actually shifted away from Paris to New York where American artists
are at the forefront of Western Art today. Not so their antipodean
counterparts who struggle with what Terry Smith, in his 1974 article of
the same name, has called The Provincialism Problem. This has produced a
cultural cringe of massive proportions that requires artists from
provincial outposts to aspire merely to mediocrity.
Provincialism permeates most levels of Australian society.
Consequently, it weighs heavily on the industry catering for the art of
Aboriginal Australians and renders most of those involved in that industry
unworthy of the roles they have given themselves. I believe it is unwise
to market Aboriginal Art from the Western Art aesthetic and attach an
Aboriginal 'Spirituality' (an exploitative tactic that suggests that the
purchaser can buy some). Perhaps it would be wiser to market this form of
art from a purely Western construct. Demand that it be seen for what it is
- as being among the world's best examples of Abstract Expressionism.
Ditch the pretence of spirituality that consigns the art to ethnography
and its attendant 'glass ceiling'. Ditch the cultural cringe and insert
the art at the level of the best in western art avoiding the provincialism
Spirituality and Ethnocentricity
There is no doubt that attaching 'Spirituality' during a sale of
Aboriginal Art helps greatly in closing a deal. Western dissatisfaction
with Christianity since the 1960s has sharpened focus in this area.
However, important matters haven't been given due consideration. Matters
· The number of artists holding the knowledge is declining
rapidly and younger people are reluctant to take up the 'Old Ways'.
Given the above, a dying, soon dead, culture is being raked over.
The image of the 'Noble Savage' (from whence comes the spirituality)
implies a position of racial superiority (consciously or not).
· It is
not necessary to invoke spirituality when promoting artists as
individuals. It is a matter of who they are, where they're from, what they
know, what they've done. These things become crucial.
· That a
proliferation of white experts is belittling the people who own the
culture. For example, the 'Named White Expert' is far better known than
the mostly 'Unnamed' Aboriginal artists from the famous Papunya School of
· That the fact that the lack of Aboriginal input into areas
of concern is continually overlooked has created the feeling that the
culture is being stolen, etc.
Other important issues arise out of the 'Ethnographic' approach to
Aboriginal Art. Anthropologists play a crucial role in the interpretation
of Aboriginal Art. Their approach is, by definition, ethnographic and its
classification system fits cozily into Ethnographic Art. Consider the
classification of 'Urban Aboriginal Art'. This is the work of people
descended from the original owners of the heavily populated areas of the
continent. Through a brutal colonisation process much of the culture has
disappeared. However, what has survived is important. The Dreamtime is the
past, the present and the future. The urban artists are still telling
dreamtime stories, albeit, contemporary ones. The Dreamings (of the
favoured 'real Aborigines' from the least settled areas) actually pass
deep into Urban territories. In short, the Dreamings cannot be complete
without reciprocity between the supposed 'real' Aboriginals of the North
and the supposed 'unreal' or inauthentic Aboriginals of the South.
Moreover, many urban artists have rejected the ethno-classification of
Aboriginal Art to the extent they don't participate in Aboriginal shows.
They see themselves as artists - not as Aboriginal artists.
The real problem arises out of the very nature of Western Art.
Westerners need to sort and categorize everything in order to make sense
of the World. That they do so in an ethnocentric manner is academic. The
world of music is not dominated by Western Classical music. Different
music styles stand alongside each other with extensive cross-fertilisation
from different cultures. Not so in visual art.
A prolific artist of international standing, Richard Bell was born
in Charleville, Queensland, from the Kimilaroi tribe. Exhibiting
worldwide, Richard has generated broad popularity for his vivid, complex
canvasses. Creating paintings with multiple significance, Richard responds
to the issues of discrimination, oppression and frustrations felt by